The face of The Walking Dead is leaving the franchise.
Star Andrew Lincoln, who has played beleaguered former sheriff Rick Grimes since the show's premiere, will exit the AMC zombie drama in its upcoming ninth season, sources confirm to The Hollywood Reporter. Meanwhile, co-star Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl, is in the midst of negotiating a rich new deal that will pay him more than $20 million as he will become the new No. 1 on the call sheet.
Sources say Lincoln will be phased out in season nine in a fashion similar to co-star Lauren Cohan, who will film only six episodes of the series. Cohan, who pays Maggie, opted to exit the highly rated AMC drama and booked the lead in ABC's Whiskey Cavalier after her efforts to renegotiate a new deal to stay on The Walking Dead went south. After ABC picked up Whiskey Cavalier to series for a midseason bow, it closed the door on Cohan's full-time return to the series — even if she had closed a new deal. AMC declined comment.
Lincoln's decision to leave comes as a major shock for the franchise, which ranks as one of the top dramas on all of television among total viewers and the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic. What's more, Lincoln's Rick is still the focal point of creator Robert Kirkman's comic series on which the AMC drama is based.
Losing Lincoln comes as The Walking Dead has always taken a "remix" approach to its source material and after an eighth season that featured the death of Rick's son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), who was largely seen as the future of both the show and the comic. (Carl remains alive and well in the source material.)
For his part, Lincoln lives with his family in London and returns to the show's Atlanta set for production. He has made no secret that he has little desire to cash in on the show's success with film deals, and he saw his time with The Walking Dead coming to an end sooner rather than later after Rick's death was foreshadowed multiple times in a season-eight storyline that wound up being part of Carl's death.
In December, Lincoln told THR that "there needs to be an end game and that is something that is definitely being talked about." In February, the actor said that "there's certainly an endgame in my head. Whether or not that's the same endgame that's in the producers' heads or the people I work with, is another matter. That's open for discussion."
Sources note that contracts for Lincoln and Reedus were up after season eight. Unlike in the past, AMC was slow to announce a season-nine renewal as the series was negotiating a larger pact with now-former showrunner Scott M. Gimple. Reedus and Lincoln closed new deals at the time to return for season nine, with the former now looking to cash in given the latter's pending departure. Sources say Reedus has already begun work on season nine in Atlanta as he negotiates his new pact, which, while it isn't a done deal, is said to be worth north of $20 million.
"There are lots of unanswered questions, and we owe a debt to all of the viewers to answer a few of those," Lincoln said in February when asked about a storyline in which Rick appeared to be dying. "So, yes, once they're answered, there is an endgame. I've said it before. There's certainly an endgame in my head."
News that Lincoln is leaving The Walking Dead comes as the franchise is poised to reinvent itself again in season nine with Angela Kang becoming the show's fourth showrunner, replacing Gimple. For his part, Gimple has moved on to a larger role with AMC as chief creative officer of all things Walking Dead after Kirkman exited his overall deal with the cable network for a rich deal with Amazon Studios.
"We knew for a long time that season [eight] was, in many ways, the end of a chapter of the show," Gimple told THR after the finale. "The differences that people will be seeing in season nine and beyond are going to be pronounced. It's going to be a very different show with characters handling very different issues, challenges and threats than we've seen before. These characters will be different in a lot of ways."
Collider was first to report Lincoln's exit.